Category Archives: Europe

Experience the extraordinary – the Oeschberghof in the southern Black Forrest

Extraordinary it is indeed, this jewel in the German Black Forrest. Build on its so-called 5 columns Living, Spa, Golf, Business and Event, this hotel offers something unique for any vacation wishes. No matter if you are looking for an active and sporty get-away, or just relaxation, or a surrounding, which makes creative reflection on a new business strategy possible – the Oeschberghof has it all!

It has been more than 7 years, since I first experienced the Oeschberghof myself; it was a nice gift from my mother for my birthday. She had been there before on a business trip and wanted to share the pleasant discovery with me. Nice treat, right?

Since 2008 I have become a regular visitor myself. I have given away birthday gifts to spend here, suggested the hotel for short honeymoons and brought along my best friend.

She calls this place “her own little oasis”, and is coming all the way from Italy to enjoy it.

I was contemplating for a long time, if I should actually take the Oeschberghof up in my portfolio and on my page, truly, because it is such a jewel, I didn’t want to share it with more than just my closest friends for the time being.

But now, I do believe it is time, as there is no comparable place for wellness and relax I have found in Europe so far.

Not even a one and a half hours drive from Zurich, the Oeschberghof lays close to Donaueschingen, the home of the Danube river well. It is fairly isolated though, which makes it perfect of course for the golf lovers who can currently play on 3×9 holes courses. The driving range offers 40 exercising spots, 10 of which are covered, as well as pitching and chipping surfaces and 2 putting greens to improve the short plays. There is also a 3-hole academy for beginners and the NGO association “Golffreunde Öschberghof” aims at making Golf accessible to children and youngsters to experience nature and develop concentration skills and stamina. Currently there are more than 100 young talents active.

The own Oeschberghof Golf Academy is one of 6 competitive golf-sports bases in Baden Württemberg. Even during winter time, the PGA Academy offers training possibilities in the indoor golf center or via the organized golf training trips. In case you are planning to obtain your “Platzerlaubnis” (licence to play on German courses), you can get it in only 5 days.

By 2017 there will be 2 additional 9 hole tracks and the driving range will also go through some enlargement and optimization by then.

Besides the golfing experience, there are two soccer fields available, not only frequented by amateurs. I have seen that the teams of FC Schalke 04, Werder Bremen, VfB Stuttgart and Eintracht Frankfurt have conducted their training camps here over the last years.

But golfing and soccer are definitely not the only reason you would come here. As secluded from noise, traffic and large crowds, the area around the Oeschberhof is also perfect for bike tours, hikes or simply enjoying nature.

However, personally once I have entered the main building area I will rarely leave it again. Why? – Two major reasons: the Spa and the Cuisine!

The spa of the hotel Oeschberghof is best described as 2500 square meters of “arrival, strengthening, relaxation and toning.” It deserves the name Dynamic Spa, developed together with the European Wellness Institute to strengthen body, mind and soul. This includes a large variety of treatments with la prairie, Horst Kirchberger or Ligne St. Barth products, as well as peelings, baths, wraps or massages. I have been pampered with Lomo-Lomi-Nui, Aroma, Hamam and Abhyanga massages so far and I couldn’t decide which the better, as they are all fantastic. Of course it is also the therapist that makes them special and I am strongly recommending Mrs. Lohr, as she has been my first choice over the last two years. All staff is excellent, but taste and needs are individual and therefore I guess you need to find your favorite therapist as well.

The beauty treatments are also very exquisite, and I was so glad to see that some of the staff have been there for years, specifically Ms. Zimmermann and Mrs. Lohr. This to me is a rather positive sign of a good working environment, which translates into the excellent service provided towards the customers.

Besides the spa treatments the wellness area also provides a 25×12.5m indoor swimming pool with Grander water, a sauna choice of 60 and 90 degrees, a steam bath, a laconium, Kneipp foot baths, holistic shower experiences as well as a snow iglu and a blockhouse sauna on the roof of the building.

There is also a Spa suite/ ladies spa including an infrared 50 degrees sauna, a sole steam bath and a Hamam with a own Hamam whirl bath.

From 12 am to 6pm you can help yourself at the Vital Bar with a choice of salads, deserts and snacks as well as drinks and coffee. One can relax on waterbeds, heat beds and hot stone loungers.

The gym offers a good choice of treadmills, cross trainers, bike ergometers and a power plate besides the kinesiswall. Courses like Aqua Fitness, Yoga etc. are being conducted daily, either in the dedicated course room on the sports terrace or the swimming pool area.

As I have come to know, there will be lots of changes and enlargements in the spa and fitness area starting in May 2016. The resort will stay open though and you might want to check for the variety of alternative offers. By the way, I can spill some of the new beans: there will be an infinity pool after the conversion.

The cuisine at the Öschberghof deserves a real thumbs up. Start with an aperitif at the Fair-Way bar or the Cheminée lounge before you have decided to dine at either the hotel restaurant, the restaurant Hexenweiher or the Övent hut.

The choice is between the romantic hotel restaurant, overlooking the golf course, serving a variety of fish, meat or vegetarian dishes, then the dolce vita experience at the Italian style Hexenweiher or the charming and naturalistic location of the Övent hut with a large outdoor deck and an interior that reminds me of a traditional hunter’s hut with lots of style. The Övent hut is also available to be booked for festivities and offers special events like “Weisswurst Breakfast”, Cigar nights, wine tastings, torch hikes etc.

Next to the main restaurant you will find an elegant vinoteque, some of the wine bottles on display are from 1955, the choice is immense either way. The two sommeliers can help you select the right wine from more than 450 local and international top quality wines.

After dinner, if you do like to enjoy an Absackerl (nightcap) accompanied by a cigar, the fireplace lounge is your place. More than 50 different cigars and cigarillos are available in the walk in humidor.

Concerning accommodation, the hotel offers 73 rooms, either in the main house or for pet lovers in the Dependance (the building is separately located between Golf course, parking and hotel). The rooms are 32 up to 48 square meters large. Rooms can also be connected for up to 6 persons with 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms.

Most of the rooms have a balcony or a terrace and are equipped with high standard bathrooms, LCD flat screens including cable and Sky TV as well as bathrobes and the most comfortable slippers I have ever used in a hotel. Wi-Fi is available for free in the whole hotel.

In case you do not bring your pet and want to use the wellness in winter, I am recommending you book a room in the main house. This way, you won’t have to walk between the houses with your slippers and bathrobe when it’s chilly outside.

For business events the Oeschberghof offers a decent amount of 9 rooms varying in size between16 square meters up to 282 square meters. One room even has an access for cars to be driven in, in case you are planning to present your prototype or similar. A team of over 5 people is supporting business events, it seems like there are no limits to what you can get. This includes modern technology, full and all day service and high quality catering.

I still hurt a bit to give away this secret bijou… All in all, should you choose to visit the Oeschberghof assure you that you will have an unforgettable stay! I hope you will cherish it just as much as I do…

Alpes et Caetera – the magic in the Valais

The Alpes et caetera opened shortly before Christmas in 2012, only 8 months after starting the construction and bringing home a newborn baby boy. It was a dear friend who actually recommended this 
little jewel to me and I am so very grateful for the tip. 



The Alpes et caetera in short:
She – Solveig, an interior designer with experience in communications and events.
He – Nicolas Reymondin, an architect who worked in events.
And then, their two little boys adding to the young men, who also call Nicolas their father.

Together they decided to combine forces and managed to create something, which can only be described as UNIQUE.
Located at the end of a small pathway in the mountain village of Vercorin on a private estate, the Alpes et caetera cabins are allotted around the main chalet, a renovated sheep barn. 
The large terrace overlooking the valley and presenting a magnificent view of the surrounding Alps is a perfect place to enjoy a glass of local wine after a day of hiking. The view from the outdoor Jacuzzi is quite spectacular as well, while a small sauna cabin (can be booked and is for private use only) is perfect to stretch sore muscles or just enjoy. Massages can also be booked via Solveig with local therapists.

High quality in every detail!

That is what best describes Nicolas & Solveig’s little paradise. 
Starting from the composition of the rooms, the pathways between the Mazots (chalets), 
the table settings for dinner and breakfast, the food bits served on slate platters, 
the fireplace in the main house, the music in the background, basically everything Solveig and Nicolas put together – is “magique”.
This place is perfect for a get-away from the noise, no matter if in your home , at work or simply in your head.
Some very original things complement your stay at the Alpes et Caetera. The key to your Mazot is an iPhone, including apps for newspapers, radio and TV, as well as a flashlight for evening walks. The sky above Vercorin during a clear night is just breath-taking, so I was very happy that cold, white street lamps didn’t ruin that. Families who bring along their
children but would like to enjoy a peaceful dinner for two at the main house, can do so by using the provided babyphone included in the room iPhone.
Also a nice idea, Solveig and Nicolas put their own music compilations on the Mazot iPhones including 
Apéro et caetera, Blues et caetera, Classique et caetera, Jazz and Lounge et caetera. Each Mazot has a little music box which can be connected via bluetooth to the iPhone.

The mazots all have their own story and are called:

  • Le CH – the CH (dedicated to the Helvetic Confédératon (CH) with all its characteristics, objects and products)
.
  • Le e La – him and her – inspired by the Vaudoise writer Ella Maillart and dedicated to the Vaudoise literature.
  • Le BD – the comic (dedicated to the Swiss comic artist Cosey (Bernard Cosendai)
  • Le bis – the bis (bisses = historic irrigation channels of the Valais, delivering priceless water from mountain streams)
  • Le rouge et le verre – the red and the glass (as Solveig and Nicolas put it: The Valais and its wines are inseparable. This chalet is dedicated to the local produce, born from the earth, stone and hard work, and drenched in Valais sun)
  • Le pic – the peak  (Dedicated to the surrounding mountains and those who climb them)
  • Le roi – the king (The cows of the surrounding mountain areas, the Hérens are a very special race. They are known for their combative temperament and each year during a fight the winning cow is crowned queen.
this Mazot is therefore dedicated to this special cow race from the Val d’Hérens and it’s queens)
  • L’Etablis – The workshop (This Mazot has long been part of the estate and it is known that the former owner had turned it into his workshop while many of his tools still have their place there)

I can fully recommend all of them, the workshop though is quite special and sui generis in its set-up. 
The original Mazot is from the 1500 and the additional “younger” one from the 1900. With a lot of hard work and care 
the younger chalet ha been dismantled and build back into place close to the original Mazot. Quite an impressive job! The most impressive idea is however to attach the two Mazots via a bridge. The bridge out of wood, closed with glass and decorated with elegant curtains connects the old Mazot (the bedroom) to the new one (the bathroom).

The Alpes et caetera is not only a wonderful place to decelerate, but also perfect if you are looking for some quality and creative time, e.g. working on a new strategy with your team, celebrating your round birthdays etc.

For more info and wonderful support for any event you would like to have organized in Vercorin, Solveig is your person!

http://www.alpesetc.ch/en/

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Speicher7 – The reinvention of an industrial silo as a ‘nouvelle vague’ vintage hotel

It is strange to come back as a guest to the city I spent over 5 years at during my studies. A familiar air surrounds the “city of the squares” as Mannheim is commonly called in German (Quadratestadt). Among the familiar buildings, restaurants, cafés, and the university in the castle are areas still new and exciting, parts unknown and curious.

The opportunity to test the look and feel of the Speicher7 Hotel was provided by the invitation to the wedding of two dear friends. Based on where the navi system brought me it was hard to believe that I could find a place so interesting and beautiful. The waterfront area of the river Rhine in this part of Mannheim was no place to spend time during my university years. This has definitely changed today. The area still does not feel like a warm neighborhood, but it is a revitalized part of Mannheim with a fashionably industrial and posh feel.

The boutique hotel, designed and rebuilt by Schmucker and Partners on behalf of Jürgen Tekath and Thorsten Kraft, won the European Hotel Design Award for the category “Conversion of an Existing Non Hotel Building to Hotel Use” in 2013. The building, formerly a grain silo from the 1950s, had been unused for around 30 years before Jürgen Tekath took an interest in it. Tekath, already known well in Germany and Mannheim for his former projects Blumenladen Tekath, Café Flo, Mode Makassar and Café Lido had apparently been looking fore quite some time for a special location with his architect friend Thorsten Kraft to start a new project.

When speaking to the friendly receptionist Muhamed and hotel manager Annette (everyone is on first name basis here), I was told that Jürgen, an India and Yoga fan had travelled the world with his friend Thorsten to get ideas and inspiration for their hotel project.

When entering the hotel it is almost like entering a world unto itself. The lobby as well as restaurant and bar is in one large room surrounded by warm colors, ventilators on the ceilings, and leather sofas with lots of cushions. The walls are decorated with a large hodge-podge of items from all over the world. It has a rustic, industrial feel to it, but with the smoothness of a dreamy, oriental touch. You can spend days sitting in the lounge area and you will discover something new every minute. Even though it is full of things to see, it doesn’t feel overwhelming.

Each of the 20 rooms is individually designed and fitted with single elements that feel like they must have caught the eyes of the two designers on their world journeys. In our double room the desk was an old wooden workbench complete with the original vise grips and old wooden boxes for nightstands that gave the room warmth and a unique charm. The window was humongous, overlooking the street but no noise could be heard through the triple-glazed windows. The only downside was that you needed to put down the shades to prevent yourself from giving a free peepshow.

The bathroom is well equipped with bathrobes and slippers were provided by reception upon request. Rooms with cute names like “small storage” and “river room” are sized at 25m² to 37m² while the Nouvelle Vague and “harbor rooms” go up to 45m². Some bathrooms even have their own view over the Rhein. Apparently there are also rooms with the shapes maintained from the original building including a 12m high bathroom and a 6m high guestroom with a window of same height. The cooling and heating is provided by the photovoltaic-system on the southern façade and makes the hotel even more likable and environmentally friendly.

All rooms are furbished with COCO-MAT beds, which we already have come to like from the hotel we stayed at in Chania, Crete. The amenities include AESOP products and what I specifically liked was the fact that there is no unnecessary snick snack in the bathrooms.

The walls in the Speicher7 have remained in their original raw concrete state, but do not make you feel uncomfortably cool. Candles, flowers, Buddha pictures, and recycled items are thoughtfully placed in a mix that fully succeeds at making you feel relaxed and in the present moment. I guess it is the touch of yoga lover Jürgen. He couldn’t stop himself from including a yoga room and sauna for more deceleration and relaxation during the stay.

Breakfast is served in the big room (near reception) with an outdoor terrace overlooking the Rhein. The buffet offers standard choices, topped with a lovely arrangement. The lady serving breakfast, Gerlinde was so welcoming it was truly touching. She made it feel like she was a grande dame hosting you in her own home. It’s worth coming here for her treatment only.

http://www.speicher7.com/en/

 

Ever had a burger in a former streetcar station? Get it at the Helvti Diner

Burgers are their business. And their business provides a quality and taste I haven’t encountered elsewhere, even in the USA.
The Helvti Diner, open since October 2011, is definitely the best burger place I’ve ever put foot in.

A diner you say? Well, this may not be the diner that comes to mind when thinking of an American movie or what you may have experienced in real life. This diner does not have greasy tables, cold tile floors, or booths’ that you don’t want to touch because they look filthy. No, this diner is, as my husband would say, the luxury Swiss version of an American diner.

Every time I visit the Helvti I receive a friendly greeting, especially from the general manager Armon. The authentic music they play makes the wait for a table pass quickly (times can vary depending on the day and time). Be warned that on the weekends you have almost no chance to quickly get a table as a walk in so reserve in advance if possible. If you do have to wait, rest assured that when your table is free the experience is worth every minute.

The Helvti doesn’t pretend to be a “serve all types of food” place, which I like a lot. Their slogan “Burgers are our Business” pretty much says it all. You will not find any “foo foo” or “wannabe” dishes on the menu. What you will find are burgers, fries, side salads, milkshakes, and deserts. There are a few options for vegetarians, but really, you come for the meat not the greens.

With luxury burgers also come luxury prices. But once you taste this special burger developed by Françoise Wicki (chef of the Restaurant Helvetia across the road) you will find that it is worth every Rappen (Swiss cent). The Swiss Prime Burger is declared to be 100% Swiss Veal. The classic burger is 100% Swiss Angus Beef, while the Helvti Diner special is made of 100% Wagyu Beef. The Wagyu is supposed to have a more aromatic taste, although I am not sure I would be able to tell the difference. The meat mixtures do not contain any further additives, as often used in other burger places, such as pork meat, eggs or simply fat. A quarter pounder (170g) burger costs between 17.50 CHF (Swiss Prime Burger) and 32.50 CHF (Wagyu Burger) each served with coleslaw, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles. If you feel very adventurous, you can even go for the double quarter pounder (2x170g). Just keep in mind that the double is a lot of meat to eat. I once shared a table with three guys who ordered the doubles only to watch them go pale when they were served (which made me laugh to no end).

The burgers come with a homemade sauce of chili, spicy BBQ, cocktail, hot’n’spicy tomato, curry or garlic mayonnaise. I prefer the garlic mayonnaise over the others, especially the hot’n’spicy which was too sweet for my taste buds. You can further “pimp your burger” with cheese (choice of original cheddar, Swiss alpine, and blue), Swiss bacon, fried egg or my personal favorite “holy moly! guacamole” for an extra change between 2.50 and 4.00 CHF. I often order more than I can actually eat. My usual is the Swiss Prime or the Classic Burger with a side of French Fries (extra 4.50 CHF) topped with cheddar, bacon and the holy moly! guacamole. Add a nice cold Amboss blond draft and I am as happy as can be!

The atmosphere at the Helvti Diner is quite pleasant despite the high turn over of guests. The seating is narrow and the tables a bit small so it may not be the best place to go for a long evening. Unless of course you like to hang out at the bar, drink some beers, listen to nice music and watch people come in, go out and go by. As someone described it before: “You never sit at the Helvti Diner longer than on an extended tram ride.”

The people working at the Helvti Diner are extremely friendly and attentive, the burgers are cooked as you’d like them and have always been served exactly how we ordered them. Even when the place is over crowded, Armon and his staff have always been super calm and managed to accommodate all their guests as well as possible.

Tips:

  • Always make a reservation, no matter if lunch or dinner time
  • Ask for a booth in the back of the diner
  • Watch out: Closed on Sundays

Helvti Diner
Kasernenstr. 2
8004 Zürich
Tel.: 043 322 04 24
http://www.helvti-diner.ch

Fatma Hanoum Boutique Hotel – Eastern fairy tale in Crete

The driving style of the Kriti (locals) is just one of the many surprises that await you when arriving in Crete. You will see plenty of European tourists, mostly from France or Russia, and many big hotels along the marvelous beaches. But one thing that will be special even among all of the other surprises on the island, is a little boutique hotel called Fatma Hanoum Boutique Hotel in Chania.

If you are planning to stay in Chania then the Fatma hotel is an absolute must as you really will not find anything like it in the world.
The Fatma Hanoum Boutique Hotel in the Jewish Distric Palia Poli of Chania takes you on a journey into the past.

Owners Giorgos and Marianna have managed to create a real thousand and one night fairytale with the help of local architect Dany Droianos that combines Ottoman and Venetian architecture with eastern elements including a great choice of lightning, oriental carpets, soft fabrics and high tech facilities. The concept, from the hotel’s name to the name of each of the rooms makes you feel as if you are being taken by the hand of Fatma herself into an enchanting and unique world.

The hotel, opened 3 years ago, has undergone a massive renovation. Evidence of this can be seen in the elegant entrance area, the breakfast room and the each of the 6 rooms.

Wood, stone, and glass are harmoniously combined with modern furniture and high quality products such as the i-compatible stereo, espresso machine, and the beds of Coco-Mat (natural sleep products) complete with Tempurpedic pillows. They have also included small details like essential supplies deviantly hidden in the drawers.

We stayed in the Yildiz room for the first few nights, which I personally chose because of my favorite color: green. Isolated on the second floor with it’s an own roof terrace, Yildiz is just as beautiful in reality as displayed on the hotel’s website. But then, the same could be said for all of the rooms.

Our last night (which we added after our initial booking) we stayed in the Yasmin Suite. This suite has a maisonette type room with the bed up on a mezzanine level. Like the other rooms, the wood and glass is nicely blended into the interior as well as the lighting. The only thing missing was a dedicated balcony extending out over Skoufon street. Even without the balcony, you still can admire the view through the windows and the shared roof terrace just outside the door is plenty large.

My personal favorite and the room I would book next time is the Güzel. This wide open room welcomes you in green with a small balcony overlooking the indoor patio and a walk through closet that leads to the large bathroom decorated in both green and blue with a beautiful period bathtub shielded by a glass wall.

Breakfast is served in a sunlit atrium with a beautifully placed pebble stone floor and two cozy oriental niches in the background. The buffet is set-up with a love for detail, offering local products like dakos, cheese pie, and yogurt – a certified original Greek Breakfast.

Of special note is the hostess Marianna. She really made us feel welcome and fulfilled all of our wishes. This includes everything from the morning coffee to suggestions for excellent restaurants in Chania, the surrounding mountains, or even locations as far as the most northeastern part of Crete. Her sunny and charming manner from the first moment you step into the Fatma Hotel, to the last minute, when leaving is exceptional.

Tips:

  • Book a massage with Rita
  • Eat at the  tavern Glossitses

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Manos Small World – a wonderful small world in Santorini

It may seem very difficult to decide on where to book your hotel on Santorini, especially if you are looking for one that combines it all – perfect location, breathtaking views, quality accommodations, and the spirit or heart of the island.

After we landed on Santorini and collected our luggage, we were taken by taxi (arranged in advance by the hotel) to Manos Small World, where we were surprised to be greeted by name.  My first reaction was “Ahem, do I know you?” Imagine my embarrassment when I realized that the person who had walked up to greet us was the owner of the hotel, Thanasis. Like a modern day Hercules, he schlepped our two heavy pieces of luggage down the steps to the hotel.  Hard to imagine that he has been greeting his guests and carrying their luggage this way for over 20 years since he opened the hotel in July, 1990 at the age of 24. Today, almost 50 years of age and the father of two grown up children, he is still full of positive vibes for his small world and guests.

If you were disappointed by the drive from the airport towards Fira and the other villages, you will be very happily surprised or relieved when you arrive at the Manos Small World. This is the Santorini you have seen in pictures or heard of from descriptions of the island. It is complete with white washed cave houses decorated with blue window shades and almost blinding bright bougainvillea flowers.

Manos Small World reflects the personality of Thanasis himself – calm, warmhearted, attentive and full of positive emotions for his guests or friends, as he likes to call them. I had the privilege and honor to take a look the pictures and memos he has collected since the first day he opened his small world for business. It was very touching to read the messages left by guests who came for single visits or returned time and again. The memories include the pictures he has received from all over the world thanking Thanasis for his hospitality and the wonderful stay at his charming place.

Today, Manos Small World offers 11 rooms on three different floors, all facing the Caldera, with views of Firostefani and Fira, as well as Imerovigli and in the far north- west Oìa. The rooms are all plenty large, with a small kitchenette, a sitting area complete with a small welcome bottle of white wine, and a relaxing sofa area. The bathrooms are close to the sleeping area, equipped with hair drier, and basic amenities. Breakfast is served at your dedicated table, in front of the room, from 8am until 11am or even later. The breakfast is simple but of high quality, much better than any buffet breakfast at large hotel chains, prepared from traditional Greek dishes with care and lots of love.

Book your vacation on Santorini directly with Thanasis on www.manos-santorini.com

Thanasis is happy to help with any recommendations for lunch or dinner in any town on the island, information about which beach is good to visit (depending on the wind direction) and organization of sailing trips, rental of car or bikes or anything else you can possible imagine. If you ever think of getting married on Santorini, I am sure that Thanasis will make your dreams come true in his little world.

Tips:

  • 3-5 days on Santorini is enough time to explore the whole island, best by scooter or four-wheel bike.
  • Oìa is famous for the sunset, but beware that the whole island will be squeezing into the tight passages around the areas with a view.  Either you get there early in plenty of time to get a nice drink on one of the many terraces or prepare yourself for a mad rush that feels like “this is the last sunset we will ever get to see” situation.
  • Driving on the island is ok, although you shouldn’t trust too much on the driving rules. As long as you are safe and watch out for the other crazy drivers, you’ll be fine.
  • Santorini compared to other islands may not really offer the best Greek food.  Prices are quite high and quality is average as we found out on the three nights. Fresh fish of the day is always a good choice just beware as many of the seafood options may be frozen.
  • Ask Thanasis for restaurant recommendations to make sure you do not step into the bad tourist food trap and mistakenly take that for traditional Greek food.
  • Recommendations: Mama Thira, Remvi, Aktaion.
  • Room 8 is on the top floor at the end so you have your silence and people are not walking by your door or table. But as guests seemed to be a little like Thanos himself, calm and respectful, any other room is perfectly fine.
  • Rooms 8 – 11 are all on the top floor with the added benefit of no noise from moving chairs in the rooms above.

 

Ithaki – Athens posh restaurant with a view

The opportunity to have dinner at the locally renowned beach restaurant Ithaki in Vouliagmeni came about through pure luck, chance and the help of a very charming Swiss International Airline agent at the Athens airport named Emmanuel. Due to an overbooked flight, we were offered the possibility of giving up our seats in exchange for a free overnight stay in Athens, a generous amount of pocket money, and a return flight the following day.

Once the possibility became reality, our guide Emmanuel took us on a tour through the secret passages and corridors of the airport to retrieve our luggage and to make arrangements for our hotel and return flight.

As an added bonus, he also recommended an exceptional place for dinner. From our hotel it was only a 30 minutes taxi ride to Vouliagmeni.

There, the Ithaki elegantly presented itself right on the Kavouri Beach with a strong vibe of poshness.

Our first impression included lots of wood and glass, white table cloths, smooth lightning, a live piano player, the sound of waves, and very intimate and private tables arranged along the terraces (all facing the sea).

All in all, maybe not the cheapest place to eat in the area, but definitely a must experience. The menu was not overwhelmingly long (a pleasant experience) offering traditional Greek dishes, fresh fish and meats, as well as Sushi and Sashimi. Surprisingly, some of the fish is actually frozen (typically indicated with an *). A pity since there are plenty of fresh fish options to choose by the kilo from the local area.

The wine menu presents a good choice of Greek and international wines. Service is very polite and attentive, almost blending into the surrounding.

As a starter we selected an eggplant/cheese dish and fresh mussels in a white wine sauce. The serving process for the main dish of fresh grouper was a unique experience of presentation (rolling cart and silver bell covers to keep the food warm) and preparation (surgical removal of the bones, fins, and heads from the fish prior to serving with fresh vegetables).

Tips:

  • Booking required if you are going to typical Greek dinner hours (between 22:00 – 24:00h).
  • If you take a taxi there consider arranging a return with the same driver. As the area is well liked be Athenians, it might be difficult to find a cab for the ride back to the city.

To Beef or Not to Beef

The Officina della Bistecca and Dario Cecchini’s
philosophy of butchering

To meet Dario Cecchini, the owner of the Antica Macelleria in Panzano in Chianti, is worth every kilometer on the windiest road in Tuscany. Following in the footsteps of 8 generations of Cecchini butchers, the Ulysses of meat, how he likes to call himself is the personification of the “divina cucina di carne”. Anyone who thought the Argentinians or Americans cook the best steaks, has never had a taste of Dario’s heavenly Florentine steaks.

The recommendation to get a seat at Dario Cecchini’s table came from a Florentine friend, but it also came with an expectation warning to not be disappointed if nothing is available since tables are booked weeks in advance. So, one day before our only chance to stop at this Tuscany institution our luck ran true in the form of a forecast for rain that turned into a sunny day and available seats on the outdoor terrace.

Not really knowing what to expect (except for the best meat in the region) what we received exceeded anything we could have imagined. To call a meal at the Officina della Bistecca lunch or dinner would be an insult to the “foodtainment” we experienced. I am not sure we will ever be able to replicate the conditions of our first visit. The date was April 25th, which in Italy is their WWII Liberation Day. All two of the main streets of Panzano were packed with cars and people. If it wasn’t for all the Hells Angels of Chianti, we might have missed the Antica Macelleria Cecchini.

outsideThe simple entrance of the Macelleria on the street level is split into a small dinning area and a full service meat counter with it’s own bar playing heavy metal music. At first, we didn’t know where to enter past the bustling crowd or even who to ask about our miracle reservation. We finally settled on asking the butcher at the counter who directed us to the back of the shop where we could only see a door to the meat locker. Squeezing past more of the Chianti Chapter Angels rocking out to Guns n’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine while eating and drinking some Chianti red, we noticed a plain sliding door tucked in the back left corner of the room. The gatekeeper behind the door checked us off the list, admitted us up a narrow flight of stairs past the indoor dinning area to the outdoor terrace. Yeah!

Set up like an Italian wedding from the 50’s were two long tables that would have been at home in any beer hall complete with place mats describing the table setvarious cuts of meat on a cow and not one-centimeter spare distance between you and your neighbor – this was our final destination.

Being a bit early to the feast, we had our choice of where to sit and choose a comfortable place at the far end of the table. There were bowls filled with carrots, celery and red onion rings, a simple bean soup, baked potatoes and bread for sides. Even the salt was special consisting of Cecchini’s own mix of salt and herbs perfect for everything on the table. With the table menuset, we were about to begin.

The opening act was a Chianti crudo, apparently one of Dario’s signature dishes. Even if you don’t like raw meat, I can guarantee you, it’s the best beef tartar you will ever try. Next up was the Carpaccio di culo (bum cut) quickly followed by the third course of Costata alla Fiorentina (Bone-in Rib eye or Strip steak). This was followed by my personal favorite, the Bistecca Panzanese.

“Ladies and gentleman, I gave you the Chianti Tuna, not sushi of the fish, but the sushi del Chianti, and now…. I am presenting to you… her majesty, the Biiiiistecca alla Fiorentinaaaaaa!”

Just when you think it cannot get any better, Angelo, the master of grill, stepped out onto the terrace and lifted his hands, holding two big chucks of meat in serviettes, yelling to the crowed:

DSC00213… and that is the moment, when you can feel the never ending wine, the comfortable and friendly atmosphere, that the friends (strangers no more) who with you share this unforgettable meal go absolutely ballistic! It somehow manages to get even louder when Dario Cecchini comes out to take his bow, blowing a loud horn, giving hugs, kisses, shaking hands and posing for pictures.

The meat seems to be never ending, but when it finally stops coming to the table, the meal is finished off with an extraordinary olive oil cake (sounds much stranger than it is – a real must try), coffee and grappa. All of this you get for 50 Euro a person – a simply unbeatable value for the price.

Dario is indeed a butcher extraordinaire, a theatrical host and an artist who butchers animals to the sound of heavy metal rock music (maybe this helps to explain the Hells Angels on the day of our visit), and has developed a stage act where he butchers an entire carcass while quoting from the works of Dante. Dario is a true example of how a career with a heart, passion for ones work, for food and for the animals can result in tastes and flavors that are not only authentic, but truly poetic.

Tips:
Dario Cecchini has three restaurants in Panzano.

Make your reservation long enough in advance.

Follow the Medicis’ steps – Ponte Vecchio Suites Florence

It is no surprise that the Ponte Vecchio Suites, in the heart of old Florence, are only a few steps away from the famous Ponte Vecchio itself. Opened in 2008 by manageress Valeria Raspini, the nine available Ponte Vecchio Suites offer apartment like rooms of different sizes, including all the comforts and luxury you would expect from a high-class hotel, without feeling overloaded and too busy.

Strategically located only a short walk from the name giving Ponte Vecchio, it also provides easy access to the Piazza Signoria and Uffizzi, the Duomo, Palazzo Pitti (with it’s magnificent gardens), and the Borgo San Jacopo. You can enjoy the nearness to all the main sights, but also experience the relaxation offered by the boutique suites only a short walk away.

The suite we stayed in on the first floor had two separate rooms for the bedroom and living area. The living area included a sofa, dinner table, and small kitchenette equipped with basic utensils and dishes as well as a Nespresso machine. The only downside was the fact that you had to pay for the coffee capsules and sugar was from Mc Donald’s, but the nice fruit basket made up for that small inconvenience. Breakfast, ordered in advance, is served directly to the room from a nearby bar. As an alternative, you can decide to take the short walk to the bar itself and eat there.

The spa and gym at the Ponte Vecchio is in the basement and has to be booked in advance, as it is for exclusive use. It is rather small and cold, but probably very comfortable after a hot day in the city. You can also book a massage if you desire. Highly recommended is Alessandro (+39 303 76 278) who is an experienced therapist. Beauty treatments are available as well, but need to be booked in advance as the person is external. Not sure if I would recommend the beauty service, so beware when you book it.

The excellent booking service provided by Larisa, and the very friendly personnel Elena and Tatiana at reception deserve a special mention. All three ladies went the extra mile to make sure that you feel at home, gave good recommendations for restaurants, and made any requested bookings with a smile. They were very helpful regardless of the request.

In addition to the room, we also booked a private tour through the hotel with a local guide named Paola. While her tour of Firenze was informative and provided a local view on Firenze, the one we would really recommend was the one we booked (with Paola’s help) the following day. The tour was through via florencepass.com, and Maurizio (the company’s founder) was an extraordinary tour guide. He is passionate about Firenze’s history and arts and we could have listened to him for days. In addition, he has a delightful sense of humor. On our private tour we did the Uffizi, accessed by a side entrance that saved us a ton of time avoiding the normal entrance lines. The Uffizi is great on it’s own, but with Maurizio, who knows where to go and what to look for, it became an exceptional experience.

The Vasari Corridor though was the icing on the cake. The corridor tour is private and not something you can buy a ticket for at a ticket office. It’s very limited and we felt special having the opportunity to pass beyond the locked doors into the corridor while everyone in the Uffizi looked on and wondered why we were allowed in there. It was incredible to see all the artwork hidden behind the doors that most people will never see in addition to walking the exact path that the Medici family walked from the town hall to their palace.

Tipps:
Book a private tour with Maurizio: www.florencepass.com
Park your car at Garage Lungarno, but make sure you call in advance because spaces are limited. The hotel staff will help you with that.

Garage Lungarno
Borgo San Jacopo 10/R – 50123 Firenze (FI) – Italy
Tel: +39 055 28 25 42

www.pontevecchiosuites.com

Seek and hide truffles in Siena – Taverna San Giuseppe

The choice of restaurants in Siena is just as large at the hotel choice. Some of the restaurants you can find on TripAdvisor or other sites catering to frequent travelers. Luckily we had recommendations from a friend’s wife (with support from her local colleagues) presenting us with an exclusive list of local favorites to choose from. We trusted our friends’ direct and especially authentic, Italian suggestions and were rewarded with a special experience at the Taverna di San Giuseppe. This is how fromfriendsforfriends.ch works.

The Taverna di San Giuseppe is a short walk up an inclined street leading away from the Piazza del Campo. It is somewhat hidden and a nice surprise when you find it as you are in an area where you don’t expect a restaurant anymore.

The interior is warm and inviting and really feels as though you are in a Cantina with its wooden tables and rustic walls. The owner’s son Matteo told us that the current building dates back to the year 1100 and older still, the wine cellar housed in the tufa rock of an old Etruscan house dates back to 200 BC. Opened in 1998 by Marco Neri and Lorella, a Sienese family, the restaurant used to be an auto garage and a carpenters’ workshop. Matteo could still remember the cars lined up for repair and mechanic parts hanging off the walls.

The San Giuseppe menu features several classics such a Ribolita (a hearty potage made with bread and vegetables), Brasato (braised beef or stewed with vegetables), and Bistecca Fiorentina, but the recommendation we selected was the fileto with truffels and Prunetti olive oil and the cinghiale (wild boar). Of course you will also find a great variety of homemade pasta including Gnudi, Pici, and Tagliatelle, choices of meats such as prosciutto, salumni, sausages, and finally a great choice of cheeses from the wine cellar.

When you order your food, ask Matteo for a recommendation on the wine in combination with the meals and then take a walk down to see the wine cellar while the food is being prepared.

The cellar is indeed tremendous with more than 500 labels of national and local wines, of course mostly Tuscan ones. The wine cellar can be reserved for private parties and events as well as private wine tastings and wine classes.

La Taverna di San Giuseppe is indeed a restaurant worthy of a recommendation in Siena. While the choices on the menu are vast, it is the small things that matter in the end, and for me it was the attention of the service (one waiter even brought me a little stool for my handbag), the excellent quality of food and the comfortable environment.

Tipp: Book a table after 9 pm and you will get the local environment, rather than the non-Italian visitors.

Address:
La Taverna di San Giuseppe
Via G. Dupré, 132, 53100 Siena
Tel +39 0577 42286
www.tavernasangiuseppe.it